After twenty years of battling with courts in Oklahoma, Thomas Webb III was awarded for $175,000 for over a decade of his life lost.
Webb was convicted in 1983 of a rape and robbery that occurred the year before. The victim, then a student at the University of Oklahoma, mistakenly identified him as the perpetrator. Without the technology to match Webb with DNA evidence gathered from the site, he was put behind bars for fourteen years.
In 1996, Webb was finally able to prove that the victim had pointed out the wrong man. The DNA collected at the scene was successfully matched to another person who had been in Norman, Oklahoma, on the day of the crime.
After years of rejected appeals, Thomas Webb III was able to walk free. He had gone into prison as a young 22-year old and emerged as an emotionally scarred 36-year old man.
His wife, Gail Webb, had married him when he was still incarcerated and led the charge to exonerate her husband.
The support Thomas Webb had from his spouse wasn’t enough to keep him above water. Even after he found a good job working with computers, he struggled to adjust to normal life.
Eight years after his release, Webb tried to seek some financial aid for his wronging. The state of Oklahoma caps payments for exonerated inmates at $175,000 – a sum most wouldn’t think sufficient to cover what should have been the eager and exploratory years leading up to a career and marriage.
He was denied. Instead of appealing and fighting the judgment, he turned to the bottle. Webb began a battle with alcoholism and substance abuse, trying to get Oklahoma to give him some semblance of compensation for all the years of his life he’d wasted as an inmate.
Webb eventually managed to turn himself around, but not before going through a divorce and spending a while homeless.
Finally, in 2017, Webb was awarded $175,000. The former Attorney General of Oklahoma, Scott Pruitt, had ignored his lawyer’s applications for months. Once Pruitt passed out of office to become the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, his successor quickly approved Webb to receive compensation.
Some states award exonerated individuals millions of dollars for the time they spent behind bars. Unfortunately, Oklahoma isn’t the single, stingy exception – the likes of Kansas, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, along with fifteen other states, don’t provide any compensation at all.
Three years ago, in 2014, the man who committed the crime Webb was convicted of was put on trial.
The rapist was held for a year in Cleveland County before the charges were dismissed. Gilbert Duane Harris, who had been responsible for the sexual assault and robbery of a University of Oklahoma student in 1982, walked away a free man; the statute of limitations on the case had passed.
Thomas Webb III has done his best to make amends with the circumstances he’s been thrust into. He told NBC News that, even if $175,000 didn’t amount to the time he’d lost, he was happy to have at least been acknowledged.
“But hell, a public apology would have been the cheapest way to come to that,” Webb said.
When he met his former accuser outside of a high school auditorium in 2015, she tapped him on the shoulder, her eyes filled with tears.
“Thomas, I’ve been waiting so long to say this: I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Webb, stunned, collected himself and said, “It’s okay. I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago.”
The two embraced, crying together.
It was the first time anyone had ever apologized for what happened to Thomas Webb III.